In the national headlines memorializing beloved actor and human sheepdog Wilford Brimley, two major career works were unanimously cited: Oatmeal and Cocoon.
Almost all of us can pull up the Quaker Oats advertisements on YouTube, or the Liberty Mutual spots that made “diabeetus” a sidesplitting meme with kids before the internet existed (“It can help you have a better LIFE!!!” he barked in a way that both sounded like a threat and a concern).
But, when it comes to Cocoon, a heart-tugging “old people meet space aliens” movie directed by Ron Howard from 1985, those of us over 35 are assuming quite a bit about its accessibility or lasting cultural footprint. That’s because, to this day, Cocoon isn’t available anywhere, on any streaming media site. And it hasn’t been since…well, ever. For a PG-13 movie featuring a horny Wilford Brimley, that’s a shock. Or maybe that’s the reason.
Cocoon has been off the radar for so long that it’s gone from the movie that would never die, and never grow old — once played endlessly on early HBO and local basic cable matinees — to being Thanos-snapped out of pop culture consciousness entirely.
Which, to a great deal of us “Cocoonatics,” is insane. Cocoonatics isn’t a thing, but I’m unsuccessfully trying to get it going. I loved this movie. Everyone loved this movie. Siskel and Ebert were delighted by this movie.
In May, on social media, I posed a quick question after realizing the movie was a complete memory wipe for many friends younger than me: “Quick poll: anyone under 30, have you seen or heard of the film Cocoon? If you’re over 30, about how many times have you seen Cocoon?” It ignited a powder keg of discussion and emotional response with hundreds of comments ranging from “About a million times” to “It made me cry really hard” to “Nope. No idea what that is.”
To my aging horror, I realized that people like me (over 35 and let’s leave it at that), continue to assume Cocoon is a ubiquitous movie for the entire world. If you’re under 35, Brimley’s obituary is probably the first time you’ve even heard of it.
Cocoon is just one of a depressing amount of films still not available on streaming media…Islands in the Stream, I call them. Screenwriter John August calls them “Missing Movies,” and wrote about this scourge in 2018 during his frustration of trying to watch Matt Dillon’s teen sex comedy The Flamingo Kid.
Cocoon tops the list of Missing Movies for many, but it also exists in its own Missing Movie subset: movies that aren’t available to stream, and aren’t easily findable on digital physical media, either.
Wanting to see if Cocoon even “held up” as a film, I quickly mourned my long-lost, worn VHS copy and purchased the rare, DVD 2-pack of Cocoon and Cocoon: The Return for a steep price. After hunting it down, and then finally finding a way to play the Australian region coded disc, my teary eyes during the movie’s swelling orchestra confirmed my suspicions: Cocoon holds up, baby.
As for Cocoon: The Return, the consensus remains as it did in 1988 that the less said, the better.
Here are just a few reasons that I personally demand the pure, joyous, and sweet-natured Cocoon be brought to streaming media for a new generation during this, the worst year of our collective lives. If there was ever a time to re-discover the lost feel-good movie of the 80s, this is it.
1. The WTF Plot
For the uninitiated, Ebert’s logline for Cocoon is “Aliens bring the Fountain of Youth to Florida.” That’s probably the most succinct description to a plot that is batshit insane on paper, especially for a major motion picture. Thousands of years ago, peaceful aliens from the planet Anterea were hanging out on Earth in the mythical city of Atlantis.
You know, near the St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club, in Florida.
But then, their vacation ended abruptly when Atlantis sank, leaving behind 20 Antareans in large, seaweed covered Cocoons (Leonardo DiCaprio points.gif). Now, the aliens have returned to collect their friends. Why did the aliens, in their massive, Close Encounters spaceship, wait 10,000 entire years to come back for their friends? Why did they take the human form of Brian Dennehy? With their vast technology and eons of knowledge, why do they even need to charter a boat from Steve Guttenberg to help search for the Cocoons? None of this is clear.
What is clear is that the decision to temporarily store the Cocoons they dredge up from the ocean floor in a pool near a retirement home is short-sighted. Because soon, three old scamps — the legendary trio of Wilford Brimley, Don Ameche, and Hume Cronyn — start poking their noses where they don’t belong and discover the lifeforce-giving powers of the Cocoons. Powers that allow the octogenarians to do flips off diving boards, breakdance at clubs, win bowling tournaments, and punch the lights out of Clint Howard, who plays a nursing home orderly. KA-POW!
But, of course, the comic moments aren’t what gave Cocoon its lasting appeal. It’s stuck with fans 35 years after seeing it because of its simple mediation on old age. On death. On regret, and love, and what it means to live life. It’s pretty heady stuff for a movie about giant alien pods that crash land in a senior citizen swimming pool. And it’s too good to sit on a shelf somewhere.
2. It’s the Great Forgotten 80s Film
If released today, Cocoon would be a sweet little indie movie, a word of mouth hit seen and loved by a few like Robot & Frank. But it can’t be understated what a major motion picture this was at the time, from a much-loved director. The cast is a who’s who of elderly “I WANT TO HUG THEM” stage and screen superstars and “that guy!” actors: Brimley, Ameche, Cronyn, Dennehy, Maureen Stapleton, Jack Gilford, and Jessica Tandy. As a kid, and even now, I wanted them all to be my grandparents.
Cocoon was released alongside a murderer’s row of now-classic 80s movies: Back to the Future, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, The Goonies, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, Teen Wolf, Witness, Brazil, Fright Night, Rambo: First Blood Part II…the list goes on. Cocoon grossed $87MM, wedged at #6 in the highest grossing films of 1985 between Out of Africa and The Jewel of the Nile. It is the only film on the Top 10 highest grossing films of that year to be unavailable to stream.
It netted Don Ameche a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, his first and only, presented by Cher — in one of her most infamous Bob Mackie getups — and a powerful standing ovation, to boot. But if you wanted to, you can’t watch Cocoon this afternoon.
Just like the film’s protagonists, the movie actually ages quite well for an 80s film. On the other hand, Ron Howard’s follow-up feature Gung Ho — a Michael Keaton and Gedde Watanabe comedy about the Japanese taking over an auto plant in Detroit — is readily available to stream and…hoo-boy, it’s pretty offensive and cringeworthy these days!
3. Hot Alien Sex
In one famous scene, after Wilford Brimley’s little Beetus is “reinvigorated” by Cocoon powers, the newly-horny oatmeal spokesman slips into a shower bare-ass to surprise his wife. The producers decided this scene didn’t contain enough raw sex appeal, so Steve Guttenberg was brought in as additional eye candy. The Gute plays a hapless boat captain, unsuccessful fishing trip guide, and ripped piece of man meat. When the aliens arrive disguised as humans, offering him a stupid amount of money to help their secret Cocoon-finding expedition, they’re joined by an alien who wisely choose not to take the form of Brian Dennehy. Instead, this alien takes the form of Raquel Welch’s daughter, actress Tahnee Welch. I suspect the alien who chose the form of Brian Dennehy, on realizing he could have instead chosen the form of one of the most attractive women in the galaxy, muttered “godfuckingdammit” to itself.
After the initial meet-cute that follows between Welch and Gute, we get to the scene that is seared into the brains of anyone who happened to be a pre-pubescent in 1985.
Guttenberg, the rascal, is spying on Welch disrobing through a Porky’s peep hole in the ship, made for just such an occasion. Her shirt comes off, braless and tasteful from behind, her olive skin and taut shoulders making the hairs go up on every adolescent in the theater sitting uncomfortably next to their parents. Her oversized, 80s tennis shorts are zipped slowly down, revealing tiny underwear that soon fall around her ankles. Guttenberg’s peering eyeball swells to the size of a grapefruit.
She then grips the back of her neck and violently rips all of her skin completely off.
The horrifying fake body and rubber fright mask lurch off, revealing the blinding alien presence beneath as a howling score out of 2001: A Space Odyssey plays. I don’t know if you’ve ever gone from turned on to petrified with fear in the span of 10 seconds, but these were the risks of walking into a PG-13 movie back then.
Instead of his horrified heart blowing out like an old tire on the spot, Guttenberg’s insatiable libido perseveres and he eventually DOES have alien sex. This time, she turns into a ball of light, screeches nightmarishly around a room, and launches herself into his chest, causing what I can only assume the VHS movie box describes as “Out of This World Orgasms! –Gene Shalit.” Taken together, the scenes taught every 80s kid a very valuable lesson: sex is terrifying, gross, traumatizing and should be avoided at all costs.
4. That Incredible Soundtrack
If we’re being honest, Cocoon succeeds largely in being a pure tonal Spielberg E.T rip off, but that doesn’t make me love it any less. Many movies at that time were: Flight of the Navigator, Batteries Not Included, and even the much-mocked Mac and Me. Films featuring good-natured aliens, bittersweet pathos, high drama, laughs, and shamelessly tear-jerking scenes.
Well, maybe not Mac and Me.
The emotional pull of Cocoon is greatly heightened by its incredibly moving score, one of the things people remember most from this film outside of the hot alien sex. The opening notes to James Horner’s Cocoon theme are enough to send me into absolute sobbing hysterics. Jesus, it’s happening to me RIGHT NOW.
Part of that reason is because this is my dad’s all-time favorite movie score, and it has a special place for me. Dad owned the Cocoon soundtrack on cassette, and would play it in the Buick LeSabre incessantly. The only other cassette we had in the car was the Bad Boys theme from COPS. So, in my mind, every trip to the grocery store was either a hot pursuit of low-level crime, or a race to get to the spaceship to see grandma leave Earth.
Horner (who tragically died in a 2015 plane crash), said “There is a before and an after Cocoon … because Steven Spielberg loved this film and my music. My career really took off with Cocoon and An American Tail.” So, thanks to Cocoon and Spielberg, we have Horner’s legacy of weep-inducing movie soundtracks including Braveheart, Glory, Apollo 13, Field of Dreams, The Rocketeer, The Land Before Time, and a boat movie called Titanic. Many films aren’t available to stream because of music rights…so, could that be the case here? In John August’s Missing Movies essay, all of the films he cited as unavailable also had Horner scores: True Lies, Apocalypto, Willow and Cocoon.
5. Wilford Brimley Goes Fishing with your Feelings
Score aside, one sentimental scene is the stand out for nearly everyone who has seen Cocoon. In the film’s central tender moment, Wilford Brimley is fishing with his grandson (Barret Oliver, who also emotionally traumatized many of us in The Neverending Story). Brimley explains, nonchalantly while casting a line, “I guess me and your grandma are going away.”
In the film’s third act, after all the fun “what would old people do with newfound energy!” scenes, the elderly friends discover their reckless use of the Cocoon energy is killing the friendly aliens housed inside. Like all good things, mankind exploits and ruins anything good with its greed.
But, instead of just forcibly intubating a chest burster into each of the old farts, the kind aliens offer a permanent place alongside them in space…where “they won’t get sick, they won’t get any older and they won’t ever die.” Of course, they’ll have to leave their families behind. It’s in this context that Brimley is telling his young grandson that he’s leaving for good. This scene still guts me.
It’s the moment I wish I had gotten with my grandmother at that age: that she was going to go away, and I wouldn’t get to see her again, but that everything was going to be ok.
Brimley delivers the scene with such simplicity, such love, such colloquial grandfatherly ease. It’s so wrenching, tender and moving. And it’s so very unavailable to stream, tragically.
For some reason, no one is out there beating the drum for Cocoon. And I get that it’s not really a priority right now. But we could all use a little something nice. And at the end of the day, Cocoon is just that: very nice and wholesome. Its grounded and human story is, appropriately, ageless. It’s a love letter to actors of a certain era, and the script allows them one more special chance to shine. It’s a lightning in a bottle kind of movie, that couldn’t be recaptured even with its ill-advised sequel.
And now we’ve lost Brimley (who was cast, incredibly, as an elderly person even 35 years ago). Also this year, we’ve lost the great Brian Dennehy — who plays a sweet guy in Cocoon, not a hardass cop, as a rare career turn. With them, we’ve now lost the entire principal cast of delightful, charming, irreplaceable elder actors who populated the film.
It would be a shame if we lost the chance for this great 80s film to be re-discovered, too.